Wednesday, 27 January 2010

The ethics of Idiocy

It was quite refreshing to see how ‘excellence’ was given priority over ‘success’ in 3 Idiots. Until now we have been seeing a good number of movies about morality and success, of which the most recent example was Rocket Singh. In the period of recovery from economic recession, the film adds a necessary caveat on how to do business. The film moved beyond the dichotomy of good businessmen and bad businessmen by shifting the focus from the actors to the systems. It brought ethics into the core of economics in a powerful way.

However going back to the issue of excellence and success, and without challenging the core idea that excellence should precede success, I was wondering what would have happened if we could change the order of the ‘idiots’. Put Aamir Khan’s character in Sharman Joshi’s shoes without changing their class background. In other words, what is the role of material contexts in defining what success and excellence could mean? What would be the ways to achieve them? Moreover, where would the morality and ethics of success figure in the discourses of class backgrounds and how?

And this is where I feel like making a preposterous statement that although I loved watching 3 Idiots for its great entertainment value and for a meaningful message for discarding not only rote learning but also for chasing up genuine interests, I am not sure if the movie depicted poverty in its varied aspects. I am not arguing for political correctness in the depiction; I am arguing for the sensitivity towards it. Why was it necessary to depict the scenes of Aamir and Madhavan’s visit to Joshi’s house in black n white background in the backdrop of laughter-evoking musical piece? The whole scene of that encounter – between a superfluous rich-background – (Aamir) and a middle class – guy (Madhavan) on the one hand and Joshi’s gloomy house with plasters peeling off the walls evoked laughter than anything else. It represented the mimicry of poverty. Not even the irony was left, if at all poverty has any irony!

There would be many movies one could possibly think of to juxtapose this sort of representation, but I am here reminded of a Sai Paranjape’s movie called Disha. Made in the 1980s (most probably 1984) the movie has multiple thematic repertoire. While one could read urban-rural connectivity in that others could possibly turn to women issues. The thing which I liked the most in that movie was the variegated trajectories of poverty, which do not burden the viewers with their acuteness but neither caricature the differential response generation. Om Puri is the madman of the village who out of frustration of being poor (and lack of water in the village) had been digging a well for almost sixteen years. His sense of impoverishment made him enterprising because at last he succeeded in getting water. The characters of Raghubir Yadav and Nana Patekar deal with their worlds by migrating to Bombay. However they again followed different trajectories – while Yadav who was keen to migrate chose to come back once water arrived in the village (his heart lay in the rurality?) Patekar, who was coerced by his immediate needs to migrate, decided to stay there, because his wife, again because of poverty, was forced to work in the local bidi factory where she ended up having liaisons with the manager. Every character was, so to say, poor; they shared the same material conditions, but every character showed distinct traits in dealing with their immediate conditions.

This is the turf where 3 Idiots failed to score a point – the universalisation of the message of excellence over success was too monochromatic. To be fair, the narrative did try to complicate this by making Aamir’s childhood a surrogate to richness – a domestic help in a rich family. Also, he left the college empty handed without that affluence and without the worldly tag of being the topper of a prestigious college. Yet, in no way it convinces, at least me, why a character like Joshi’s should not aspire to just succeed. More importantly, and ironically the social constrictions and differential economic backgrounds were almost flattened. The chest-hair ridden belan of Joshi’s mother will at best be remembered as a good joke in the movie in the same way as the other guy will be who always put a price-tag to objects that also represented human emotions.